Enigmatic Deer Skull Masks Made 11,000 Years Ago in Yorkshire Go on Display

Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of Star Carr living high on the hog by a now-extinct lake may have developed symbolic pageantry using bone head-dresses

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Artist's impression of Star Carr 11,000 years ago: The climate was warming and people were making masks, or head dresses, out of red deer skulls.
Artist's impression of Star Carr 11,000 years ago: The climate was warming and people were making masks, or head dresses, out of red deer skulls. Credit: Josh Murfitt / MAA
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Over 11,000 years ago, people in Star Carr were carving eyeholes into the crania of dead deer, presumably using the stone tools found at the northern Yorkshire site. As of Thursday, three of the 33 evocative headdresses made by the Mesolithic-era hunter-gatherers out of deer skulls, and other miraculously preserved artifacts, are on display at Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Star Carr deer mask, 11,000 years oldCredit: Josh Murfitt, MAA

The exhibit, “A Survival Story – Prehistoric Life at Star Carr,” also features bone, antler and wooden objects and weapons extraordinarily conserved by the unique conditions at Star Carr, the museum explains.

Ordinarily, all that latter-day archaeologists find from the distant past are stone and pottery artifacts that don’t suffer decay. There are exceptions, such as peat bogs in which the oxygen-breathing bacteria of rot cannot live. In Yorkshire, northern England, the waterlogged ground at Star Carr almost miraculously preserved the ancient art.

“It’s here that archaeologists have found the remains of the oldest house in Britain, exotic jewelry and mysterious headdresses,” says exhibition curator Dr. Jody Joy. “This was a time before farming, before pottery, before metalworking – but the people who made their homes there returned to the same place for hundreds of years.”

The jewelry included beads and pendants made of shale, a soft stone and amber (fossilized tree sap).

How 11,000-year-old tools were used at Star CarrCredit: Josh Murfitt / MAA

Though Joy points out that the Mesolithic was a pre-pottery era in Britain, perhaps it’s just that none from that time has been found yet. Primitive but clearly identifiable Chinese pottery dating back some 20,000 years has been found, for instance; and “Jomon” ceramics going back about 16,000 years have been found in Japan.

The first pottery in the Middle East dates to about 10,000 years ago, it seems – though some postulate the late date is because Neolithic Levantines preferred to barbecue their beasts and breads on open fires, not boil things in crockery pots. But we digress.

When these masks or headdresses made of red deer skulls complete with antlers were made on the shores of a small, shallow extinct lake, called Flixton, Britain’s climate and coastlines were rather different.

Star Carr is also where archaeologists found the oldest-known pendant in Britain, made of engraved shale into which a hole was bored for a string.

One of the three Mesolithic deer skull headdresses from the new Star Carr exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Credit: Josh Murfitt / MAA

Also, Star Carr seems more developed than a mere campsite for nomadic hunter-gatherers. The archaeologists also found 227 antler points used to hunt and fish. That’s a large number of antler points for a small community, which was possibly not that small or survived over quite a long time. Our theories of community size before the advent of agriculture may bear revisiting

Wooden oar from Star Carr, 11,000 years oldCredit: Josh Murfitt / MAA

Worship on the waterside

When these people lived, the great white sheets of the last Ice Age were in full retreat and ocean levels were rising together with the ambient temperatures. The Mesolithic people of Star Carr lived at around the time the climate really began to warm.

Mesolithic hand axes - Star Carr, YorkshireCredit: Josh Murfitt / MAA

Britain was still attached to Europe by land bridge, but evidently the ancient folk by Flixton knew their way around water. The archaeologists even found a wooden paddle, which is also featured in the exhibit.

By the edge of the long-dried-up Lake Flixton, the archaeologists found evidence of Mesolithic-era wooden walkways and jetties into the lake: this is the earliest-known example of carpentry in Europe, the team says.

What the masks served for is anybody’s guess, but archaeologists tend to associate ancient non-utile artifacts in pre-agricultural times to religion.

There are a lot of prehistoric non-utile artifacts that would have cost a great deal to manufacture, in terms of effort, man-hours and even materials.

Mesolithic stone tools in the Star Carr exhibit, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of CambridgeCredit: Josh Murfitt / MAA

The question is why anybody would go to that much effort. You can’t reasonably cook a meal or chase down and kill an elk with a dead deer on your head, even if you cut eyeholes into the bone. Nor would anybody in their right mind take on the enemy garbed in the fearsome, heavy stone masks found in the Levant from some 9,000 years ago.

The deer skull masks are reminiscent of the stone Levantine ones only in having eyeholes, but both may speak of a rich symbolic pageantry. Also, objects similar to the deer skull masks had been found in Germany, the Cambridge archaeologists report. Also, take the nearly 10-foot (3-meter) tall human statue, elaborate, decorated and decidedly Modigliani-esque Shigir Idol – found in a peat bog in Russia – that also dates to the Mesolithic, about 11,500 years ago. It too would have been difficult to make even today.

Then there are the Mesolithic sites in Anatolia – the most famous of which is Göbekli Tepe, which some call “the first temple in the world.” Part of this remarkable site, with its elaborate animalistic and other carvings, also dates to about the pre-pottery Neolithic age around 12,000 years ago.

Why would Neolithic hunter-gatherers scrabbling for a living put so much effort into making such artifacts, from crocodiles carved in stone to deer skull headdresses? Archaeologists suspect they were trying to wheedle or propitiate the gods; that these are marks of early religion.

The Cambridge archaeologists also raise the postulation that the deer headdresses may have been used as camouflage while hunting. But Joy also notes that the ancient artisans seem to have removed part of the antlers. One suspects the deer wouldn’t have been fooled.

“A Survival Story – Prehistoric Life at Star Carr” is on display in the Li Ka Shing Gallery at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Downing Street, Cambridge, from June 21 to December 30, 2019. Entry is free. The objects displayed were recovered from excavations conducted by the late Cambridge archaeologist Prof. Grahame Clark; more recent excavations have been conducted by the archaeologists from the universities of Chester, Manchester and York.